Disclaimer: Expansively not mine.
A/N: This is Book Two of a series of three fics called 'A Triangle of Many Sides' (as you may have noticed from the title). Book One dealt with pre-canon, Book Two will feature what I affectionately call the 'hidden stories' we didn't get to see during-canon, and Book Three will deal with the post-canon timeline that directly follows the events of the fic you're reading right now. Book One was really a series of one-shots that connected only very loosely, but which laid some groundwork for Book Two. Consider it a giant prologue for what's to come. Books Two and Three have a much clearer storyline to follow.
Basically, this is my BUT HOW DID THAT EVEN WOOOOORK? fic that attempts to make some of the more sprawling aspects of the FFVII universe make sense (e.g. Where the hell did Cissnei go after Crisis Core? Cloud's Dad – MIA, dead or an alien from the Planet Zog? How did Zack and Angeal first meet? AWOL Turks of Before Crisis, where are you? And Kunsel. Just ... Kunsel as a whole. Who is he, where did he go, how the hell did he know so much and why didn't he become a super-villain because of it? Kunsel vexes me greatly).
All I can say at this juncture is: give it a chance to make sense and it will. Oh, and thank you for reading.
1. Zack: Mentor
Zack swept the sword down at an angle that would've decapitated Cloud, had he still been there. His speed was much improved, Zack reflected, bringing the blade up and bunching his muscles under him in a leap designed to bring him in close.
Swordplay was, by definition, more effective at close range. Long-range was for snipers and assassins, not SOLDIERS. Throw a sword at an opponent like an arrow and it kind of defeated the point, especially if you missed, though he'd seen desperate men do it before. Zack hoped – no, he intended – never to give up his sword unless there really was no other option, and even then he anticipated going to fetch the thing back afterwards. Neither rain, nor wind, nor stinky monster guts would keep him and Angeal's last gift apart for long.
He thought briefly about his mentor as Cloud dodged his attack. Not so long ago it'd been Zack doing the dodging and getting his ass handed to him. Now he was the more experienced and used all the tricks he'd learned in Wutai to try and trick Cloud into making a mistake. He was faster and stronger, the mako in his blood giving him an edge, but Cloud had gotten wily. He was also less easily distracted than Zack had been when Angeal first took on his training, which meant he'd learned more theory in the same amount of time.
Cloud feinted and faked and generally tried to skip out on facing Zack directly because that would be suicide. Smart move. Still doomed to failure, though. Cloud's tactics were like wolves attacking prey bigger than them – dash in, slash, then get away again before it had time to react. It was classic dripping-water-on-stone strategy, designed to wear an opponent down or frustrate them into making a fatal error. In a group like a wolf pack this was fine, but one on one? Not so much.
Time to bring this one home.
Zack hadn't been holding back, per se, but he hadn't exactly been cutting loose. He didn't cut loose now, either, since a First Class cutting loose could level a building and reduce a grunt like Cloud to a greasy stain on the ground. Zack liked Cloud. He didn't want to turn him into a greasy stain. For one thing, it'd be difficult to replace someone so honest and eager to please, plus he'd only just got the guy trained in the fine art of How Zack Likes His Coffee.
Zack pushed off, put on a burst of speed and came in under Cloud's defences. Spooked by Zack's sudden appearance, Cloud made the mistake of moving his blade from a defensive to an offensive position, leaving his chest exposed on the upswing.
Zack could've easily angled his own sword around in a perfect stab through the heart. Instead, he hooked one heel behind Cloud's legs and tripped him up in a basic manoeuvre. Cloud tried to save himself with a handspring, but with Zack so close it was no use. He landed flat on his back, sword-arm outstretched, and flinched when Zack's sword thrust into the floor next to his head.
"Thus endeth the lesson," Zack smiled.
Cloud blinked up at him. A frustrated noise lurked in his throat and his forehead furrowed. "I did it again."
"Yeah, but you lasted longer this time."
"I can't believe I made the same mistake again." Cloud was breathing hard, but Zack still heard the anger in his voice. "I always lose it when my defences are breached. I should know by now how to react when that happens."
"Don't be too hard on yourself, buddy –"
"I'll bet you never made simple mistakes like that."
"Are you kidding? Angeal used to say my head was made of layers of titanium netting – everything took twice as long to find a way in and even longer to stay there."
Zack rolled his eyes. Honestly, Cloud could be so obsessive sometimes. "Look, let's put this in perspective: me, a First Class SOLDIER who's had to hack up more than a few monsters to keep them from shredding his devilishly handsome face; you, a normal guy with basic training and no mako in you. Kind of like swatting a fly with a tank. Under those circumstances, you did pretty good."
"Thanks for reminding me." Cloud rolled sideways. The fact he wasn't yet a SOLDIER of any class was still a sore point. "Were you even trying?"
"A little." Zack grinned. "You nearly made me break a sweat."
Anybody else would've replied with a well-deserved, "Asshole," but Cloud just looked at him with an expression that implied it. He was always so polite, a proper little country boy with manners inscribed right down to his bone marrow. It had taken months for Zack to chisel away that veneer to the person underneath, who thought and felt and had opinions of his own.
Then Zack reflected that he was also a country boy and had learned the hard way to be more respectful to his superiors than, say, shortening their names to just initials and giving a thumb's up instead of a salute. Hm, maybe it was a northerner thing.
"Seriously though," he said, attempting to bolster his friend's confidence – or at least bandage his pride, "you're improving."
"You are. You nearly hit me a couple of times today, and you're definitely a lot faster than you used to be. Lighter on your feet, too. Some of these outcroppings are narrow." He gestured at the solid-holograms surrounding them. "I'll bet if it was you against another SOLDIER he'd get a shock at how good you are for an infantryman."
"Yeah, right before he separated me from my lungs." Cloud was pragmatic and, Zack felt, unreasonably downbeat. Yeah, probably another SOLDIER would kill him, and probably it would be messy, and more than a bit painful, but did he have to be so gloomy about it?
"Hey, if you'd rather not do this anymore…" Zack left the sentence hanging.
Cloud quickly shook his head. "No, I … sorry, that was ungrateful. I do appreciate you giving me extra training like this."
"Damn skippy." Technically, ordinary grunts weren't allowed into the VR Chambers. Shinra was careful with its finances and didn't like the idea of expensive equipment being ruined by men whose future might be in cannon fodder. Still, Zack was a First Class and that came with certain privileges; like being able to use the rooms whenever he wanted, provided they hadn't been booked in advance, borrow extra swords from the equipment stockpile and not be questioned afterwards as long as he didn't damage anything. "You're too hard on yourself. You need to take time off sometimes from being such a perfectionist."
"Easy for you to say. You're a natural at this."
"Pfft." Zack made a noise like the whoopee cushion he used to sneak onto Angeal's chair before important meetings. "Much as I like the mystique that gives me, I have to reply with a big fat 'yeah right!' I've had more injuries from training than you've had hot dinners. Plus I was in a war. You learn fast in those sorts of circumstances. These skills are hard won." He struck a pose. "I've suffered for my art, and I didn't even have a good friend like me to smooth out my rough edges before I got myself a mentor."
"What about Second Class Wainwright?"
Zack paused. Cloud only knew Kunsel by reputation and seeing him around Shinra. As a Second Class, Kunsel had never undertaken sole training of any corps, and showed no interest in advancing to First, and the responsibilities thereof, anytime soon. He was an anomaly that way. Zack had been itching to advance to First almost as soon as he became Second, but Kunsel had languished on the lower tier for years and seemed perfectly happy to stay there. His friendship with Zack hadn't suffered, but they did see a lot less of each other than when they were both the same Class. Zack couldn't remember the last time they'd had an actual conversation, outside email, longer than it took to pass each other in the hall.
Still, Cloud was right. Kunsel had been there to see all the embarrassing rough edges Zack would rather forget, and had helped sand a few down as they both muddled their way through basic training. Maybe that was why Zack had decided to help Cloud when the poor guy failed his SOLDIER exam. He knew first-hand that sparring with someone was the best way to improve your skills.
"Don't worry, buddy. We'll make a SOLDIER out of you yet."
Cloud eyed him with suspicion, before allowing his face to relax. He looked much less like a human stress ball that way. Desire to get into the SOLDIER programme had etched lines into his face that weren't nearly as pronounced when Zack first met him, several years ago on that mission to the frozen north. And on that note, how many people could say their friendship started with a helicopter crash?
You could bake potatoes in the sheer intensity of Cloud's wish to succeed. His continuing failure and dejection had inspired Zack to offer the odd sparring session to help hone his skills. Cloud had passion and drive, and saw entry into the SOLDIER programme as a way of gaining respect, but he wasn't a naturally gifted warrior. He was too focussed on what came next to fully process the here and now. He thought about the future a lot and the past not enough, since one seemed more attractive to him than the other, and that showed up in his fighting style. He always tried to think a few steps ahead and got tangled up in his own feet because of it.
Like today's match; he'd been so intent on anticipating Zack's attack that he'd neglected to shore up his defences before moving into what he thought was the best response. Zack had killed people before, but he wasn't needlessly bloodthirsty. Still, he didn't want his friend killed because he forgot to check an opponent was dead before turning his back on the guy.
To that end he'd kind of taken on Cloud's training as more of a mentor than just as a friend. Just a little. He was nowhere near Angeal's level, and the higher-ups didn't consider him capable of having an actual apprentice of his own yet, which might indicate certain things Zack didn't like to think about, but …
Thinking about his own mentor still hurt, but it was a dull ache, not the searing agony it had been at the beginning. Time didn't heal wounds, but it did put a buffer in place so you could get on with what needed to be done without feeling like you'd swallowed a razor blade.
"Are you seeing your lady friend tonight?" Cloud asked.
"'Lady friend'?" Zack echoed. "How old-fashioned are you? She has a name, y'know."
Cloud shrugged. He was kind of uncomfortable about women, as though courtship was still a major issue with strict rules and shotguns at the end if you didn't follow them.
He didn't talk much about his past. Not unless he was badgered, which Zack was good at, so he'd gleaned that Cloud hadn't exactly been Mr. Popularity back home, and that his pre-enrolment dating record was slim-to-none. There had been a girl he liked, but Zack doubted their relationship had even made it to friendship, much less romance. Though much less uptight than he used to be, Cloud still seemed to think of girls as mysterious, unfathomable creatures, and would probably have an aneurysm if one he didn't already know came up and talked to him. One of these days Zack would have to introduce the guy to Aerith, maybe ask if she had a friend who could teach Cloud the error of his ways.
"So are you going to see her?"
"Yup." Zack easily swung his sword onto his back and reached to help his friend up.
Cloud sniffed. "You're going to shower first, right?"
"I should kick your ass for that."
"You already did."
"Touché. Wait, was that an actual joke?"
Zack grinned. There was hope for Cloud yet. "C'mon. Let's get that sword back to the stores before you're arrested for theft of Shinra property and assaulting an officer."
To Be Continued …